joker review

Batman and the Joker would not exist if it wasn’t for Gotham City. Whether it’s the city that creates the Bat and its villains – as Joker or Gotham imply – or Batman that changes the city – as Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy seems to think – Gotham City remains a vital component in the Batman mythos. Except it was not always like this. 

For you see, the story of Batman is also the story of Gotham City, which is also the story of Joker. Joker showed us Arthur Fleck making speeches about society on a comedy talk show, so now it’s time to revisit the history of the worst city in the DC universe and how its biggest hero and villain evolved with it throughout the years. 

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When Bill Finger and Bob Kane created Batman, they did not name the city he operated in. In some of the earliest issues of Detective Comics, it is even said he operates in New York City, while the first few issues of the self-titled Batman comic book series mostly took place indoors in different settings. 

Though it was still plagued with crime in the early years, Gotham City was not meant to be the dystopia of corruption it would later become. Though it still had an endless supply of mobsters and criminals, and plenty of dangerous neighborhoods, it also was meant to be just like a typical metropolis. Batman co-creator Bill Finger called it full of life and opportunity. Even when the city was finally named Gotham City in Batman #4, an early issue described how some “curse the city, others love it” as one could find the biggest of successes, or the biggest tragedy. Sounds pretty much like New York to me.

Joker was introduced at this time, appearing in the very first issue of the new Batman comic book series, where he was a remorseless serial killer with a huge grin. He was among the first recurring Batman villains, but he was not yet Batman’s greatest foe. In fact, it took then-editor Whitney Ellsworth to convince Bill Finger not to kill Joker in the first issue (Finger thought recurring villains would make Batman appear inept). At this time, just as Gotham City had no personality, Joker was simply another Batman villain – neither as vital to the Batman mythos as we would recognize them to be just a few decades later. 

Though Joker appeared in most of the early Batman issues, usually murdering dozens of people at a time, the powers that be decided that they should focus their efforts on appealing to kids. And so, after just a couple of years, Joker became more of a prankster than a threat, a clown more than the prince of crime (and murder), giving him his defining character traits like the use of acid-squirting flowers, trick guns and goofy crimes. This would not change for 30 years. 

That being said, there were still great Joker stories during this era, including Detective Comics #168 in which Bill Finger wrote the first origin story for the character: Joker being the criminal Red Hood, who was disfigured after falling into a chemical vat. 

In the mid-50s, the censorship of the Comics Code Authority led to the Silver Age of Comic Books. The the Batman television show of the ‘60s rose in popularity and led to the rise of camp in superhero titles. The TV show, due to a low budget, mostly shot on the studio backlot, which meant that Gotham City was inexplicably a West Coast port city, filled with palm trees and bright beaches instead of dark skyscrapers.  This fit the tone of the character, who had no problem fighting crime in broad daylight. It was during this time that the Joker came close to being completely written off, as editor Julius Schwartz hated the character, but agreed to include him in the books due to the popularity of the Batman TV show, which had Joker as one Batman villain among many.

The Dark Knight Strikes

As the “Summer of Love” came to an end, so too ended the flamboyant and campy Batman and the bright and colorful Gotham City. As Adam West’s Batman concluded, the character and Gotham City became darker and grittier than ever before.

In 1971, writer Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams took over the Batman title and re-infused it with the moody darkness of the first few years of Golden Age Batman stories, forever changing the public’s perception of Batman and starting the Dark Knight era of the character that is still going strong. After decades of being an irritating clown, O’Neil and Adams decided to bring back Joker. In an interview with Vulture, said that their approach was to make Joker “a homicidal, mentally unstable maniac.” The result was Batman #251’s “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge”, a story – of course – about revenge and murder. As Joker revisits five former thugs who had betrayed him, he gleefully murders them while Batman is unable to get there in time to save them. O’Neil and Adams’ experimentation with the Batman mythos proved successful enough that Joker became the first villain to become the title character in a solo comic book series. This story also introduces the Joker trope of him choosing not to kill Batman in order to keep the fun of the chase going, thus introducing the dynamic that remains to this day: Joker needs Batman to be his only worthy opponent, and turning Joker into Batman’s greatest archenemy.

O’Neil and Adams not only brought Joker back into the spotlight, but they created most of what we think about Gotham City today. The pair established “Crime Alley” as the place where the Waynes were murdered, as well as introducing Wayne Tower. During this comic book run, O’Neil introduced the idea of the Joker being legally insane, which led to him being constantly sent to the infamous Arkham Asylum. And so, Gotham City became a real place with a sense of history and geography that was of profound importance to the mythos and reflected Batman’s identity and psychology, as well as a city full of buildings with gargoyles from which Batman stan on and watch over his city.

As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, another writer took a shot at redefining what readers thought of Batman. In 1986, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson introduced an older, tougher Batman coming out of retirement to reclaim Gotham City from criminals and gangs who had overtaken it. In the limited series “The Dark Knight Returns”, Miller found a counterpoint to Batman’s tortured psyche and troubled mind in the crime ridden streets of Gotham. In the limited series, the city was no longer the battleground for a fight between good and evil, but a hellhole that mirrored the urban crime and the fears of ‘80s America. An ugly place that’s always dark due to a cloud of smog covering the city at all times like the city is producing coal all day and night. Miller turned Gotham City into the worse possible place to live in the DC universe, a place you wouldn’t even look at. Miller also took Joker to another level, one where an aged Joker snaps his own neck just so the police would chase Batman.

Then in 1988, Joker once again took the spotlight in two of the most famous comic book events in history. First, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland updates Bill Finger’s Red Hood story to make it a possible origin for the character, and introduced the idea of Joker being a failed comedian who was driven insane by a world that didn’t care about him – one that would become the basis for Todd Phillips’ movie. Joker also shoots and paralyzes Batgirl, tortures Commissioner Gordon, and in a different story, kills Robin. 

“Hell burst through the pavement and grew”

In 1989 the world witnessed a Batman that was unlike anything seen in film or television. Tim Burton’s Batman gave us a Joker that was more like the O’Neil and Adam’s murdering psychopath than the 1966 clown viewers associated him with. The film turned Gotham City into a nightmare, with exaggerated and gothic architecture that Burton described as if “hell burst through the pavement and grew.” Black and white charcoal drawings informed the visual style of the city

Both 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns saw Gotham as a twisted cartoon and Batman as a direct product of the city. Since the city is a hopeless, buffoon-led nightmare, with Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent being little more than pawns in a criminal playground, Batman is not quite the beacon of justice readers knew him as, but another monster created by the city. Michael Keaton’s Batman was not a role model, but a brutal vigilante who had no trouble killing villains or letting them die, a more insane hero that reflected the insanity of the city.  

From the success of Burton’s film came Batman: The Animated Series. The Gotham City in the show was the darkest audiences had seen it yet, thanks to the “Dark Deco” animation style that had backgrounds painted on black paper. Gotham City was also caught in a timeless era that fitted whatever story was being told that week, with police blimps and a ‘40s film noir look that nonetheless also featured modern technology. The show also introduced the character of Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist who fell in love with the Joker and became his sidekick/lover/target of abuse. 

The Gotham we deserve, but not the one we need right now

If by this point Joker wasn’t already considered DC’s de facto villain and Batman’s number one enemy, Heath Ledger’s portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight would secure the character’s legacy as a pop culture phenomenon for years to come.

Nolan’s portrayal of Gotham City was as different as his take on the Batman mythos. Say what you will about the design of the city, but it became a key component in the story told in the trilogy. Gone were the gargoyles, with the movie would ditch the New York City inspiration for a design that’s mostly based on Chicago.

Batman Begins is the closest we get to the “classic” look of Gotham City known from previous portrayals, with tall, dark buildings and a monorail that goes through the city. The Nolan-creation of the Narrows neighbourhood also serves to illustrate the sickness that’s plaguing the city before Batman finally arrives to clean up the place. Nolan’s Gotham City completely changes by the time of The Dark Knight, which sees Batman as an established hero who is cleaning up the city’s criminal underworld. This is why we don’t see the Narrows again, and instead the film strips away much of the artifice and the “comic book-look”, throwing Batman into a world more like ours. Batman Begins threw a realistic Batman into a comic book world, so once the city started to reap the benefits of its vigilante hero, it became just like a city of our world. Then, as the series rolled, Gotham City’s role evolved with its hero, becoming cleaner and “happier” just as Batman was starting to consider the end of his career – and then darker and isolated once Batman became a fugitive in The Dark Knight Rises.

This extended to the film’s portrayal of Joker, which became a reflection of this portrayal of Gotham City and Batman himself. Since the Caped Crusader became a beacon of hope and justice, working with the system to support Harvey Dent’s fight against organized crime, then Joker would become a disruption to the system, an anarchist wanting to tear everything down.

Put On A Happy Face

With the DC-wide New 52 reboot, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo took over the Batman title and explored Gotham City’s history and the notion that Batman is Gotham by challenging everything he thought he knew about the city. Through the “Court of Owls” storyline, Snyder and Capullo introduced a long and deep history that intertwined Bruce Wayne’s family history with that of Gotham, even more than what had already been done before, and introduced a secret organization that controlled the city from the shadows. They also gave us one of the most shocking Joker stories ever, which saw Joker cut off his own face as he was getting bored of their dynamic.

Then in 2014 came another live-action Batman show in Gotham, which explored the origin of Batman and his villains. According to executive producer Danny Cannon said that the look of Gotham City was mostly based on the New York of Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin movies, especially “the beauty to something that’s crumbling from within and is allowing the lunatics to run the asylum.” The show would explore different sides of the city throughout its 5 seasons, showing us parts of Gotham that we had never seen before, while at the same time never giving a detailed look of the city as a whole. Just as the Gotham from Gotham looked like an amalgamation of Nolan, Burton and even the animated series, so did the show’s take on Joker become a mix of several portrayals of the Clown Prince of Crime. We first meet Jerome, which becomes a nihilistic and anarchistic leader to a cultist movement (sounds familiar?). Jerome’s appearance was based off the New 52 Joker, with his removed face, but also “The Killing Joke”, and Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight. Then his twin brother Jeremiah takes on a proto-Harley Quinn partner, and even the classic Joker look once he falls into a vat of acid following a showdown with Bruce.

Finally, we get Joker. Whatever you think of the movie, the Gotham City we see is a throwback to the earliest portrayals of the city as basically just New York. The movie shows us a dirty, brutal place full of trash, and the worst possible people.

As production designer Mark Friedberg told Backstage: “He [Todd Phillips] was largely influenced by some of the cinema in New York, specifically [Martin] Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”—with “Taxi Driver,” the awfulness, the breakdown of the social contract. The awfulness of life for somebody challenged. Whether they’re emotionally, economically, [or] psychically challenged, it manifests in the place. The city, the hardness of that life has pitted person against person. The city has become uncompromising because everyone is fighting for the last scraps. The difference between the haves and the everybody elses has gotten so extreme that we’re all rats fighting in the gutter.” 

Indeed, where Joker most departs from the Batman mythos is that there is absolutely no hope to be found in this version of Gotham City. Whether you’re on board or not, absolutely every person in the movie is morally corrupt. There are no ferries full of people who are willing to die before blowing up the other half. There is no Gotham police who – despite always losing and always being hated by the public – keep fighting to keep the streets safe. There is just hopelessness, and the Joker.

The Joker cannot exist without Batman, just as Batman cannot exist with Gotham City. Throughout the years, all three characters have changed each other, and will continue to change. Gotham City is a place that chewed up Bruce and his parents before spitting out a brutal and violent Bruce Wayne. No matter how filmmakers and comic book creators adapt the Batman mythos to new times, let’s hope they remember the importance of the city that’s filled with the superstitious cowardly lot of criminals, and the man who dresses up as a bat.

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